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Tom Barton: Irma: Water, water everywhere, but plenty of places to drink

Congratulations for being a hurricane survivor for the second time in less than a year. For most Savannah-area residents, surviving Irma was a breeze (sorry) compared to Matthew.

 

Matthew was a beast, chewing up trees and downing power lines in Chatham County. In some ways, it may have done this area a small favor, thinning local forests of their weakest members and making them more hurricane resistant. By comparison, Irma was a drama queen. Yes, she was more dangerous than Matthew early on — a Class 5 storm compared to a Category 4 — but by the time this dame arrived Monday to cause a hissy fit with steady rain and blustery winds, she had been downgraded to a tropical storm.

That doesn’t mean Irma wasn’t a word that rhymes with witch. Because she was.

While the predicted storm surge that breached the protective wall of Tybee’s sand dunes and caused widespread flooding there was awful, as was much of the unprecedented flooding of low-lying , marsh-front neighborhoods, we were lucky. The local impacts of Irma were nothing like the devastation in the Caribbean or even just down the coast at Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla., or in parts of Glynn County, including St. Simons Island.

I’m hoping that the good folks in the Hog Hammock community on Sapelo Island in coastal McIntosh County survived intact, although much of McIntosh seems stuck in a different time, as the only link between Sapelo and the mainland is a state-run ferry. Sapelo is one of Georgia’s barrier islands, as is Tybee and St. Simons. They’re called barrier islands for a reason — they take the brunt of any seaside hit from Mother Nature, sacrificing themselves for the good of the mainland.

Residents of Wilmington, Talahi and Whitemarsh islands, and perhaps even as far inland as Thunderbolt should send thank-you notes to Tybee Island for absorbing Irma’s blows and softening its impact when the storm surge moved up inland rivers and creeks.

Still, Irma validated the call from Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal last Thursday to begin mandatory evacuations of Chatham County Saturday. While it took precious time to process that information, along with optimistic updates of the Irma storm track that showed it moving west of Chatham County and putting more of this area out of harm’s way, the Georgia coast was never in the clear, not with the predicted storm surge of 10-15 feet, well above flood levels that cause highways like the Tybee Road and other coastal causeways to flood and isolate large numbers of people.

Hence, when people with access to expert information, like the governor, tell you to vamoose, a smart person gets outta Dodge.

I chose to stay and ride it out in a downtown house that has survived several hurricanes. I believe history is a good predicter of the future and I liked the odds — and the more favorable storm track, although there’s something uncharitable about hoping that a vicious storm hits someone else and not you.

After watching all the variations of the Irma storm track, which at one point had it making a beeline for Savannah up the east coast of Florida, then later had it opting to go up Florida’s west coast toward the panhandle, like a confused tourist in search of white sandy beaches instead of magnolias and carriage rides, I came to the conclusion that hurricane prediction was a crap shoot. The dice fall one way and it’s OK to stay. Another way, you should go.

After all the advances we’ve made in technology, meterology and hair spray formulas for well-coiffed broadcast weather people who stand on the beaches and tell us it’s raining, this can’t be the best we can do with hurricane predictions. Or is it?

If it is, I’m reserving a U-Haul truck to Dahlonega or Rabun Gap.

But staying put during Irma had its advantages. Evacuation is a pain, so is re-evacuating, or whatever it’s called. Assuming you don’t die from a falling tree or down in wall of water, there’s less pain.

And all things considered, staying put had its moments.

Among those who made downtown Savannah a more civilized and more hunkerdown-able place during the Irma evacuation, which turned much of the city into ghost town and closed businesses left and right, were Parker’s Market and McDonough’s Pub. Both business remained open, providing much-appreciated food and beverages to a surprisingly large number of independent-minded souls who ignored Gov. Deal and refused to let the government run their lives.

Parker’s and McDonough’s, which are cattycorner from one another at the intersection of Drayton and McDonough streets, were an oasis in a downtown desert. Choices, choices. On one corner you had coffee, hot food and essential take-out provisions like wine and beer. The other corner offered much of the same as dine-in options, including a choice seat at the bar Saturday night for the Georgia, Notre Dame football game, a joyous outcome that proved that God is interdenominational and was listening to a certain bald-headed ex-coach with blood trickling from his scalp in the second half.

Pinkie Master’s bar was doing a roaring business Saturday night as well, but without a TV screen to watch the action in South Bend, it seemed more like a Baptist church.

Parker’s Greg Parker and McDonough’s Billy Lee probably made bank during Irma, but they earned every penny and a flood tide of good will. So did their hard-working staffs. By suppertime Sunday, both places were slammed. You couldn’t get into either business without a crow bar.

Amazingly, compared to how most serious storms typically go in Savannah, power remained for most of the city during Irma. Nearly all streets were passible. About the only thing you couldn’t do was play golf at Bacon Park Golf Course, which became home to the world’s largest water hazard, thanks to the swollen Casey Canal, a major conduit of stormwater for the eastern half of Savannah.

Some fairways, areas around the canal and even the golf course’s entrance were flooded. The esteemed Donald Ross didn’t design this course to play this way. It appeared that two extra clubs and a pontoon boat would be needed to reach the green on the par 3 fourth hole from the tee across an angry looking Casey Canal.

Just up the road at the county’s Lake Mayer park, a few hardy runners were taking advantage of the blessedly cool temperatures. What is it about hurricanes that puts a chill in the air and a lift in your step? There were white caps on the lake. And, at least two capsized boats were bobbing in the water, but no capsized captains. The portion of the Casey Canal that runs along the back of the park was running wide and swift, barely fitting underneath the low, squat Sallie Mood Drive bridge over the canal while on its way to its outflow in the Vernon River. This wasn’t the day to be downstream from anything unless you were wearing a life preserver.

Indeed, the tale of Hurricane Irma was typical Savannah — water, water everywhere, but plenty of places downtown to drink.

 

Tom Barton is the editorial page editor of the Savannah Morning News.tom.barton@savannahnow.com.

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